Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Books on Language – English

As a certified “language nerd,” I really enjoy reading books about the history and culture behind languages. As a translator, you have to understand the grammar and vocabulary of a language, of course, and having a sense of the cultural is also important, but learning about the history of a language is not only helpful, but also fascinating. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that many people who teach languages too often ignore the cultural and historical aspects, which I happen to think would entice students and get them more excited about their language learning. Language is not just a way to communicate (unless you’re speaking Globish!), but also offers a whole culture and a worldview.

In this post and the following two, I’ll write about some of the interesting books on language that I’ve read.

My all-time favorite book on English is Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue. Mr. Bryson is an excellent, entertaining author who could probably make any subject interesting. His book enthusiastically describes the history of English, how it has become a global language, and so forth, but it also includes chapters on word play and swearing, and has examples of bad English. I admit that I laugh aloud as I read (and re-read) Mother Tongue, and I’ve shared the book with students, who found it both amusing and interesting.

The Stories of English by David Crystal has a different perspective than most language books in that it doesn’t just discuss the history of standard English but instead includes many varieties of English. Hence, the title is not The Story of English but rather The Stories. Many people view the standard varieties of languages as the only correct ones (in part because that is what is taught in school), but the fact is that the majority of the speakers of any language do not speak the standard. This book looks at the development of English, in all its varieties, over time. The prolific Mr. Crystal, by the way, has recently started a blog.

What about you? Do you have favorite books on languages?


pennifer said...

I really enjoyed Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct" back when it came out. I'm sure I've read other stuff, but nothing recently. Thanks for these great recs! I've read a ton of Bryson, but not that one, so I'll add it to the list.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks for your recommendation. It's funny, but I ordered Pinker's book from my university library recently, and just received an email yesterday that it had finally come in (figures that it comes when I am off on vacation!). I look forward to reading it!

Best wishes,